by Caitlin Shetterly, guest contributor
What is the American dream, anyway? Do any of us know anymore? Is it F. Scott Fitzgerald’s vision of a “green light” and an “orgiastic future” that forever eludes us? Is it our founding fathers’ notion that all men are created equal to pursue happiness? Is it a house with a perfect lawn, an SUV, and all the material things we could want? What I do know is that many of us in the working middle class grew up believing in the promise of “fruited plains,” ours to harvest if we worked hard enough. America was “made for you and me.”
Three years ago this month, my new husband, Dan, and I packed up our small car and, with most of our worldly belongings and our cat and 90-pound dog, started driving west from Portland, Maine to Los Angeles, California. It was early 2008, and the recession had only just begun. But maybe I speak for many Americans when I say that my husband and I didn’t have any idea that the downturn would become as devastating as it did.
I’d always wanted to go west, ever since my mother sang me to sleep with “Red River Valley” and my dad read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books out loud to me before bed. Dan, too, was beckoned by the sunny skies and seemingly endless horizons of Los Angeles. I hasten to add that we weren’t completely naïve. Friends of ours were making good money in photography and film, as TV writers, and also NPR, for whom I worked as a freelancer, said they could use me covering stories from L.A. So we hit the road full of hope, the American dream unfolding in front of our windshield, ours if we just reached for it.
For a few months, our lives in California seemed to be slowly building toward the dream: I was pregnant with our first child, Dan was working. We had landed a small but comfortable apartment near the Venice Canals, a neighborhood we liked. Then, shortly after President Obama’s election in 2008, California was hit hard by the recession. But Dan had jobs lined up into the summer.
The week our son was born, the first week of 2009, every job Dan had through May was canceled. We had a new baby and were in a terrifying economic free-fall.
Over the next two months, we blew through the tiny bit of savings we had while Dan applied to hundreds of jobs and went door-to-door handing out resumes all over the city. Two weeks after our son was born, I went back to work filing freelance pieces for NPR. The little I made covered a few groceries and some gas.
Finally, the jig was up. I called my mom and said I didn’t know what to do. She said, “Come home, Cait.” So we packed up our two-month-old son and drove back across America, staying with friends who reached out to us on the long journey home.
Now, for some people, moving home and in with one’s mother (or, in Dan’s case, mother-in-law) would be a fate worse than hell. But what we found there in the six months we lived with her was something deeper and stronger than the American dream we had chased with such gusto just a year earlier. At home with Mom, as we planted the garden and baked bread, as we helped her as she helped us — the recession was hard on her, too — we were a family coming together to survive.
Dan and I had subscribed to a fundamentally dangerous notion that young families like mine think we should be toughing it out alone as if we were pioneers with nary a neighbor in sight; instead we should be asking for help and reaching out to help others.
Fitzgerald famously wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” I know from personal experience that’s not true. There, at home with Mom, we reconfigured our dreams so they were no longer about material things or images of a house with a perfect lawn and two cars out front. We got lucky, eventually. When I sold my memoir about our experience with the recession, we had $16 in the bank.
When I tell people my story they say, “Only in America!” or “That’s the American dream!” Perhaps. But I’d add this: by investing in our families and communities — as Dan and I have learned to do — we will be sustained through tough times. And with some communal baking of bread and a few extra hands we can get through anything, even if the American dream is on life support.
Caitlin Shetterly is the author of Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home. She is a contributor to National Public Radio and artistic director of the Winter Harbor Theatre Company. You can read more of her writing at Passage West.
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